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From the Archives: Pat Morita, 73; Actor Starred in 'Karate Kid' Movie Series

From the Archives: Pat Morita, 73; Actor Starred in 'Karate Kid' Movie Series
Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in "The Karate Kid, Part II." (Columbia Pictures)

Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, the comedian and actor who received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the wise martial arts instructor, Mr. Miyagi, in the popular "Karate Kid" movies, has died. He was 73.

Morita, who rose to fame on the hit television series "Happy Days" after years as a stand-up comic, died Thursday morning in Las Vegas, family members said. He had been in declining health for several months.

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A surprise hit among the summer movies in 1984, "The Karate Kid" starred Morita as Kesuke Miyagi, a handyman at an apartment complex in Los Angeles who befriends a recently arrived boy from New Jersey named Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio.

At school, Daniel faces more than his share of taunts and beatings until Miyagi steps in and agrees to teach him karate. Daniel also learns important lessons in discipline, self-defense and self-confidence.

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"There is something magical about the old man's balanced, compassionate view of life," a critic for People magazine wrote. "Morita also proves that economy is effective when it comes to acting."

"With a lesser actor, Mr. Miyagi would have come off as no more than the stock Hollywood Oriental, but Morita has invested himself with both humor and humanity," a writer for Sports Illustrated noted.

Morita's performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, but the award that year went to Haing S. Ngor in "The Killing Fields."

Two sequels of "The Karate Kid" featured Morita and Macchio. In "The Next Karate Kid," the fourth installment in the series, the producers came up with a plot twist, replacing Macchio — by then in his early 30s — with another kid struggling against classmates. This time, however, the kid was a girl, played by Hilary Swank.

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Morita "was a truly generous actor, a gifted comic and an even greater friend," Macchio said in a statement released to the Associated Press. "He had touched so many lives with his vast body of work. My life is all the richer for having known him. I will miss his genuine friendship."

The "Karate Kid" films sparked a renewed interest in the martial arts, which had first surfaced with the Bruce Lee film craze in the early 1970s. Children flocked to instruction studios, and competitions sprouted up quickly around the country. But unlike Lee, Morita knew little about martial arts before he took up the Miyagi role. And his early life was anything but athletic.

The younger of two children of migrant fruit pickers, Noriyuki Morita was born in Isleton, Calif. He contracted spinal tuberculosis when he was 2 and spent the next nine years in a sanitarium run by Catholic priests and nuns near Sacramento. It was there he got the name "Pat."

Released from the facility after undergoing extensive spinal surgery and learning how to walk, the 11-year-old Morita found himself in the relocation camp at Gila River, Ariz., joining his family and thousands of other Japanese Americans rounded up after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. His family was later sent to the camp at Tule Lake in Northern California.

After the war, Morita graduated from high school in Fairfield, Calif., and worked picking fruit before settling with his family in Sacramento, where they opened a Chinese restaurant that did well until Morita's father was killed in a hit-and-run accident.

With a wife and a baby, Morita needed a steady check and worked as a data processor for the state Department of Motor Vehicles and then Aerojet General Corp.

Feeling out of place and disliking the work, Morita decided to try his hand at show business. He found gigs as a comedian in San Francisco and soon packed up his family and moved to Los Angeles.

He found more substantial stand-up comedy work, was given the nickname "The Hip Nip" and was eventually booked on ABC's "The Hollywood Palace" variety show. He worked anywhere and any time — sometimes 50 weeks a year — through the mid-'60s. One engagement in Honolulu, filling in for singer Don Ho, left an impression.

"Opening night I'm waiting in the wings," he told The Times some years ago. "The opening act is 80 Polynesian dancers. A waitress walks by me and almost drops her tray.

" 'You're the act?' she says. 'Aren't you terrified?' 'Why should I be terrified?' I ask, all confidence. 'Don't you know who has the club tonight?' 'No,' I say.

" 'It's the 25th anniversary reunion of the Survivors of Pearl Harbor.'

"I turned on all the angelic, cherubic charm I could find and I went out and I said, 'Before I begin, I just want to say I'm sorry about messing up your harbor.' There was second of silence, and then a big wave of laughter started at the back and rolled forward. That was all it took."

He opened for top acts, including Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis and Diana Ross and the Supremes, and eventually became a headliner in Las Vegas showrooms and at Playboy Clubs across the country. His family said they took pride in the fact that he once appeared with Redd Foxx at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

"Only in America could you get away with the kind of comedy I did," he once noted. "If I tried it in Japan before the war, it would have been considered blasphemy, and I would have ended in leg irons."

In 1967, he made his film debut in "Thoroughly Modern Mille," and two years later he made his debut as a series regular on the sitcom "The Queen and I," which quickly came and went.

He surfaced again in 1974 and 1975 on "Sanford and Son," playing Ah Chew, a pal of Lamont Sanford.

The next stop on the dial was on "Happy Days" as Arnold, the owner of the malt shop where Fonzie and his pals hung out. But he left that show quickly to star in his own ABC comedy series, "Mr T. and Tina," becoming the first Japanese American to star in series TV. The show, however, lasted only a month.

In 1987, ABC gave him a chance to headline a detective show, "Ohara," which went through several plot changes in a run that lasted a couple of seasons.

He found work throughout his career in lead roles, bit parts and voice-overs. He starred in the 1990 buddy-cop flick "Collision Course," which is notable in that "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno was his co-star. He provided the voice of the Emperor of China in the 1998 animated film "Mulan." His other films include "Honeymoon in Vegas," "Spy Hard" and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues."

Morita is survived by his wife, Evelyn; three daughters from two previous marriages, Erin, Aly and Tia; his brother, Harry, and two grandchildren.

Memorial services are pending.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the Pat Morita Fund of the Shriners Children's Hospital.

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